Sunday, December 16, 2007 started off quite well. I was in a city some 90 miles away from my usual residence. We participated in the first "Simbang Gabi" (Filipino traditional pre-Christmas early morning novena) Mass of the pre-Christmas novena at 7:30 AM. The weather was clear and crisp. The pastor was on
his game and the homily was worth sitting for. We left the church and went to the hall for conviviality around some simple Filipino food. We saw several people that we had not seen for a long period of time, so it was a happy moment. When we got home it became clear that my mother-in-law would need me as her companion for the 10:30 AM Mass. She had not come to the early morning Mass because of the sharp cold in the air. I brewed some "decent" coffee, checked my email, sipped my coffee and left The house at 10:15 at a slow walk with my 88 year old companion. We made good time, 125 yards in about 10 minutes. Met a lot of people who told us how impressed they were about how good the lady looked and we went down the center aisle looking for an aisle seat. We found one close to the "presbyterium" (we used to call it the sanctuary), knelt down to say "hello" to Jesus and before we could sit down, the entry of the priest was announced, so we stood and joined in the entrance hymn. In about thirty seconds it became obvious that there was a visiting priest among us this day. The pastor had located someone to help him for this weekend.
The introduction by the visitor contained a little humor. "It has been close to five years since I was last here on a Sunday morning. Those of you who were here then will noticed that I haven't aged a single day since then." There was muted laughter, followed by the proper liturgical greeting.
I personally was waiting for the homily. I didn't mind waiting because the first lector was a saintly lady who had been baptized after spending two years with me in the RCIA before being baptized at this self-same parish. She is a GOOD lector and her rendition of the Isaiah reading was right on. The second lector was not as good, but St. Paul's admonitions keep my attention sharp. The Presider at the Eucharist used a soft and subdued tone in his telling of the Gospel story, which features St. John the Baptist in jail at a point when he sends messengers to ask Jesus, "Who are you? Are you the one who has been promised or should we await someone else?"
I wondered what this priest was going to do with the story. He is no stranger to the people in the pews. I am quite sure that more than a couple were wondering the same thing. He did something I liked before the homily. He stepped away from the ambo, but did not pre-empt the altar by standing in front of it while he delivered the homily. He stood aside from the altar the entire time. Sweet liturgical move! Well, I have to tell you that the homily was good. I have to point out that I said a short little prayer before he opened his mouth so that I could be open to what the Spirit was going to tell me with this priest's voice. Well, the Spirit did a good job. A good job with the priest's voice and a good job with keeping my heart open to this part of the Word.
After the homily, the Mass went on as usual until the Our Father. Right after the Great Amen, the visiting presider led the congregation in the traditional Plain Chant version of the Our Father, in English, of course. This was a welcome change since we usually recite the Lord's Prayer in this parish.
On the way out after the Mass, I brought my mother-in-law to meet the visiting Bishop and ask for his blessing. You heard me, the Bishop. He drove his own car, (A Volkswagen, Passat), presided over two Masses, walked down the aisle himself, stayed at the altar all alone and for one day was the pastor's helper. He greeted people after the Mass and dispensed his blessings. He shook my mother-in-law's hand and blessed her after I translated her request for his blessing. This Bishop has the habit of doing this. He fairly often shows up and works with the priests of a parish. True, he has a lot of bad press, a rather lousy reputation and in fact has done many nasty things to laity and clergy alike. Despite all the good that he has done, it is easy to
find detractors of this person from one end of the diocese to another. It is just as easy to find them across the entire national Catholic community, from "sea to shining sea." This day, he was just a priest, bringing God to God's people. This should happen more often. Bishops might want to think that they can be the "voice in the desert" even if they walk down the aisle without the red carpet and the flouncing feathers and gleaming swords. Even without a good reputation and a with satchel full of bad press, the faithful will be grateful that the Bishop can respond to the sacramental needs of his people. They will be
happy to see the bishop helping his priests get through the demands placed on the pastors who in many instances work
through the demands of job without assistants. That is because when a priest is rendering service, the faithful recognize that
he's doing it because he believes. We who sit in the pews benefit from that faith because it matches our own.
I believe that about priests. I think that we all should. Join me and you won't want to cry at my funeral.